Privately run summer schools debated

Members of the La Cañada Unified school community are reacting to a recent Los Angeles Times article that questioned the merit of public school districts benefiting from summer school programs operated privately by their educational foundations.

Locally, the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation offers fully accredited summertime programming for grades nine through 12 that allows students to remediate classes or work ahead to earn credits for the upcoming school year.

The July 12 article, written by Times reporter Stephen Ceasar, pondered the fairness of students from affluent districts being able to pay for classes that bolstered their transcripts and made them more attractive to colleges, while low-income students could not.

In the piece, critics called such programs a de facto “privatization” of public school education.

But many in La Cañada call that an unfair assessment of what they see as a vital and necessary program that legitimately helps close a yawning gap in school district funding. The Foundation stepped up after the district could no longer afford to run summer school.

“We just filled a need,” said Jinny Dalbeck, a former member of the La Cañada school board who runs LCFEF’s summer school on a volunteer basis. “If we didn’t provide this summer school…where would the students go if they needed to remediate a geometry class? None of the schools in the area offer summer school anymore.”

Students pay a fee to attend intensive sessions held on the La Cañada High School campus and receive credits they can then apply toward their public school education. The Foundation pays for everything it uses, including the campus.

“We’re trying to do it in a way that is above board, legal and set up as a completely separate school,” Dalbeck said. “We pay for the textbooks, we pay for the classrooms — we pay for everything we use.”

To make the program equitable, LCFEF’s summer school is open to students from any school or district, public or private, and scholarships are available on a sliding scale for families who are unable to pay the full cost.

“We’ve never turned down a kid who’s asked for a scholarship,” Dalbeck said.

Andrew Blumenfeld, LCUSD Governing Board Vice President, said Ceasar’s article failed to point out that, in light of recent changes to the state’s school funding model, wealthier districts receive far less than their less affluent counterparts.

That’s because Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula gives all districts a base per-student amount of funding. It then provides additional money for each foster child, English language learner and student on free and reduced lunch, and gives still more to districts where those populations constitute more than half the student body.

With few students qualifying for additional funds, La Cañada Unified must operate with only base-level funding.

Blumenfeld acknowledged historic inequity in education at large, but called the argument against foundations privately running summer schools a “misguided attempt at addressing this inequity.”

“You can shut down every private school in the state of California and not more one low-income child will get to go to summer school,” he said. “It’s no longer about lifting up the needy — it’s about bringing down the well-off.”

Board President Ellen Multari agreed that providing a way for some students to thrive was not tantamount to denying others.

“With the present funding scenario in our district, the only way to make this opportunity ‘equitable’ to all would be to deny it to everyone, leaving the demand for this critical student service unsatisfied,” she said.

With no clear resolution in sight, the local educational foundation will continue to offer summer programs. This year’s session wrapped up last week, giving 311 students the knowledge and credit they needed to transition seamlessly into fall semester, Dalbeck said.

“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing,” she added.

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